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The cure for micro-management

How to use goals to get things done without telling people what to do.

June 12th, 2023

by Adam Stoddard

in Leadership & Management

Most people don’t want to be micro-managers; they just don’t know a better way. The problem is that micro-management is an engagement killer. There’s no faster way to get someone to mentally check out than to start telling them how to do their job.

When you look at drivers of job satisfaction, engagement, and performance, autonomy is the single largest determining factor. You can back up the money truck all you want; if you’re robbing people of autonomy you’re not getting their best.

So how do you maximize autonomy without devolving into a chaotic free-for-all? The answer lies in a little book about submarines, called “Turn the Ship Around!”. It’s a story about how a submarine commander turned one of the worst performing ships in the US Navy into one of the highest performing ships by building a culture of communicating intent, starting from “commander’s intent”.

Here’s how it works. The commander describes the desired end state — what success looks like — and leaves the “how” out of the picture. In a call and response pattern, everyone down the chain of command describes how they intend to fulfill the mission. Important to note that this isn’t asking for permission. The assumption is always that you’ll move forward with your plan without waiting for approval. So why do it? The purpose of communicating intent back up the chain is two-fold; it gives everyone clear context of the organically emerging plan, and enables commanding officers to proactively address problems and resolve conflicting intent.

Using goals to build a culture of intent

In Turn the Ship Around!, commander’s intent is a verbal process. In companies — particularly hybrid and remote companies — you use goals. Why? Goals are a well understood and widely used, and documenting goals in a place everyone at the company can access them means everyone has big picture context, on demand. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Create a top-level goal. This goal should describe a clear objective for the cycle/quarter/year and give plenty of context as to why that objective matters. The “why” is critical here; everyone needs maximum context for this to work. Review the goal with your team, answer any questions folks have, and revise if need be.
  2. Create sub-goals. Once you’re confident that everyone is aligned around the primary goal, have the next level down your org chart (division, team, etc) create sub-goals that drive the primary goal forward. These goals should have objectives that reflect a slice of the primary goal’s objective, and should clearly summarize how they plan to reach the objective (the how). Once again, review, discuss, and revise if need be.
  3. Rinse and repeat down to the IC level. Keep repeating this process down your org chart, to the IC level. At the end, everyone should have a actionable goal that they’re responsible for.

At the end of this process, you’ve got a solid plan expressed as a series of nested goals, but planning is just the start. Plans rarely survive contact with reality, so you need a process in place that helps you adapt as the landscape changes and curveballs start flying. Filing goals away until the end of the quarter and surprising everyone with results isn’t The Way.

Instead, you want to set a steady cadence of progress updates for all of your goals; weekly at the IC level, every other week for teams or departments, and monthly for top-level goals. Ideally, updates reflect progress and confidence. The latter is an incredibly powerful tool that eliminates surprises, and helps managers and leaders get an instant read on where they need to pay attention and/or intervene.

  • Updates should be written by the goal owner. Goal updates exclusively written by managers is an anti-pattern. People need to fully own their work.
  • Updates should be frequent at the IC-level, and infrequent at the top level. Top level goal need updates from supporting goals in order to summarize everything that’s happening, and a slower duration means you can spot and summarize trends.
  • Updates should be widely shared at the top level, and narrowly shared at the IC level. Particularly at larger companies, it’d be overwhelming if every update was shared with the entire company. Generally speaking, share updates with the people whose work would be affected by it. That’s “everyone” for a company-level goal, and “teammates” for an IC goal.

It’s a simple process, but one that pays outsized rewards and lets you have your cake and eat it too. Leaders and managers get a reliable means for proactively steering the ship, and ICs get genuine autonomy and ownership over their work. No micro-management required.

P.S. Goals in Status Hero are the fastest, easiest, and most reliable way to implement this intent-based approach with your own company.

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